the gray city

The Musician

As a light fell toward her from the stars, a light bearing the purpose that would shift her life, the Musician stirred her soup. She sat idle, letting conversation wash over her like a slow-waxing tide. The words drifted past her with indifference. They buzzed about her head, the repetitive gnats of a Gray City, souls trapped in an world without art.

No need to listen. Though the words might change, shift from moment to moment, their content was always the same. The same empty talk of those with nothing to look forward to but labor, lust, and a final languor in the grave. In the days and weeks prior, she would have indulged in these conversations, shared in the smiles and laughter, the drink and merriment that papered over the emptiness that haunted them all. But now… the Musician felt set apart, like there was something more that called to her. And there was, a new thing drifting toward her in the wintry night, a new song she pieced together bit by melodious bit.

Her metal spoon kissed the lip of the porcelain bowl with a whine and tremor that beguiled her far more than friends' chatter, who spoke of work and gossiped about lovers. Who walked the same patterns over and over, She took the sound, the constant tang, and married it with the world around her, picking rhythm and pitch from the din.

The whine married with the hammer clanging outside, the repetitive clang of metal on metal on wood, which married with the shovel scraping against the gravel through the snow. The thump of snow gathering in piles on the side of the city’s streets. The revving motors of cars pulling and out of the tavern lot, the beat of patrons drying their boots on the welcome mat by the entrance. The crackle of the flame in the fire place, the fizz of drinks poured tall. These noises danced with the tavern’s swell, the muted laughter of those seeking joy, even in these bland and troubled times.

But still something was missing.

That something drifted toward her, the conceit, the understanding that unified disparate sounds and made them something more. The human element, excised from within them long ago, one that only just now found its way back into the world. It was consciousness and intent, the intelligence that harnessed these sounds, reordered the chaotic clamor and uncovered the beauty beneath. The spark hovered closer, and closer, and the Musician approached the precipice of the first new song.

It landed. And the Musician began to hum.

She understood then what it was. A name bubbled up from within... music... an atavastic recollection of her ancestors. They sang, inspired by the wind, or the waves, or the beat of their own lives. They created instinctively, an instinct lost in the purported artless paradise this gray city claimed to be, an instinct the musician had now regained.

She rose suddenly, knowing it was her charge to spread this memory far and wide. It was her duty to compose, to arrange, to…

Suddenly she realized what was missing. The facet around which all the separated sounds, that slowly waltzed together and then apart in her head, seeking an order that did not quite exist, could be fashioned into something greater than the sum of their parts. The component had existed within her all along. It existed, presumably, within everyone: her own voice.

Ignoring the odd looks from her colleagues, the Musician, lighted by the blue fire of inspiration, feeling a song swell up from her forgotten depths, exited the tavern. She walked into the snowy street, into the cold. She heard the howl of the wind, and the wet crunch of the snow beneath her feet.

And, smiling, she began to sing.

The Lady Sang of Winter

The lady walked through the snow, humming in time with the soft crunch of the fresh powder packed tight into the dirt, the fine ice ground ever finer beneath her boots. The cold seared her throat, but she did not cough, warmed as she was by the one thing she possessed that was hers and hers alone:

A quiet and dangerous song.

They watched her through shuttered windows, through blinds cracked open by chapped fingers, both repelled and enchanted by the strange sound she made. It woke something in their hearts, a cold fire. Her song called to something long dead, a ghost even their mothers' mothers had forgotten.

They watched torn between impulses: Between revelry—the urge to join her in the wintry streets, drink deeply of the cool air, pack the snow down with their dance, and fear—some glanced at their phones, remembering the Gray City’s mandate call to report the unknown, onlookers froze in the liminal space between freedom and tyranny.

All frozen… but one.

A young man, bearing the certainty that dooms so many young men. The whisper: this is not the day you die. He shivered, from the cold he said, just the cold, he ignored the flames he felt spark inside. The voices crying 'this is not wrong!'

But it *is* forbidden.

"Stop!" He called after the lady as a winter storm began in her wake, swallowing his words. In the wind, the falling ice, no way she heard him. Yet she turned nonetheless. Her ice blue eyes sunk into a dark, sallow, face, her glare piercing through him, like she saw him, inside of him and the city street for a mile beyond.

'Stop!' He repeated unnecessarily.

She waited, snow falling in heavy flurries, damp flakes lumped together as the temperature flirted with freezing. The storm danced around her as she waited for the young man to again find his voice.

He stuttered, rendered uncertain by her stoicism: "Y-you... you can't do this!"

Do what?

Her lips, as best as he could see through the white, were still, but he heard her voice--cold and deep--quite clearly. Its calm belied the surrounding storm.

"Huh?"

I can't... do what?

The young man forgot he was supposed to be cold, the blue flame raging in earnest.

"This." He stepped forward, buffeted by the wind, inching closer to the dark lady with blue eyes, draped in a black shawl.

"Whatever this is," With each word, he found a store of untapped courage. "This new thing. This-"

He gestured to the storm that consumed them.

"-sorcery."

Poor child...

He blinked and she crossed the distance between them in an instant, studying his face with the removed interest of a scientist observing their lab rats.

You think this sorcery? Something arcane and dark? No, this is the world. It calls to us to create, begs for us to express its beauty. You have forgotten. We had all forgotten. Been made to forget For so long we slept in the gray and silence. We lived and died without purpose, without a way to know ourselves. We forgot our history, our art, the music of the world around us.

She stopped, seeming to luxuriate in the cold the young man no longer noticed

But I have remembered.

"Remembered? Remembered what?"

The families watching the encounter from the warmth and safety of their homes could no longer see the two in the street. They saw only shadows in the white, they heard only the omnipresent song of winter, the blue flame that both warmed and cooled.

A new song.

She spoke without her lips, directly to the young man's heart.

Would you like to hear it?

Before he could respond, she grabbed his head with hands bared to the elements, pulling him forward. She sang directly into his ear, singing of the first winter. Of a planet wrapped in ice, a frozen, fledging world. She sang of a cold, blue fire. A fire that fled from her voice into the young man’s ear. The young man fell into this song, this song of the snow and ice. He felt himself disappear into a cold too oppressive to deny.

Witnesses, later asked to describe what they heard, and what they saw, responded by weeping, by staring into the past, by smiling as they remembered the tune they dared not openly recall.

In their hearts, they all felt the same: this... 'song' was the most beautiful thing they had ever heard.

As for the young man? When the song finally abated, the storm subsided, when onlookers ventured from their homes, he stood alone. His hands, like his eyes, like his clothes, like his soul, were all ice blue. No heat would melt him, no force could break him.

Nothing but winter remained.

The Gray City

How many more artists do you think we will allow to defy us?

That night, the Painter watched music return to the Gray City, from her cell deep within the bowels of the colorless beast. She watched a song--the first new song in a hundred years--descend upon the world. She beheld the Melody's incandescence, lamenting the tune was not hers to claim.

She smiled. That she saw the stars at all was a kindness. She supposed the minds who conceived of her imprisonment thought of the view as torture: to see her muse and to not paint. Unimaginative folly. Those poor souls would never understand: creation happens first not on canvas, but in the heart. No imprisonment, no matter how confining, how oppressive, would strip the colors from her soul, nor the imagined compositions of light and shadow and bright brilliant color from her mind. When she closed her eyes, she saw the canvas, the paint, the palette, and she was free again.

It was like flight, creation, using your own powers to leave the world you knew behind and enter one of your own making. And once that world was real, no amount of force could take you away. In her dreams, the artist danced through a thousand fanciful landscapes. Though the surfaces she painted them on were now all likely ash, or consigned to some ill-lit basement, they were nonetheless burned indelibly onto her mind.

Clutching the bars, she watched the song fall toward some unsuspecting life. She imagined the joy it would bring, the sorrow. She imagined she could just make out the tune, a low mournful whisper of forgetting, of death, a crescendo towards celebration crying 'I have returned!' She drummed her fingers against the cool metal bars, separating her from freedom and dreamt that within their vibrations hid a song of their own.

She sat back to wait, knowing this song would not let her owner keep quiet. The act of composing, long forgotten in this world, could not be kept to oneself. The happiness in to be found in expression was… overwhelming. They would hear this expression, fear it. The powers that be would find this musician, capture them and bring them to the belly of this colorless beast. This penitentiary of newfound artists.

And she would, finally, hear this new song for herself.

It was a mistake, bringing them here, trying to corral the beauty of a world yearning to express itself. Soon this prison, this ghetto of the forbidden, would overflow with new songs, new words, new works. And humanity would at long last remember itself. Remember the beauty in the world it was their charge to interpret.

Revolution, the Painter knew, was only a matter of time.

How many more artists do you think we will allow to defy us?

At least one, at least one more.